R. Eric Landrum, PhD
Boise State University
Mitchell M. Handelsman, PhD
University of Colorado Denver
And we’re back.
When Bradley Cannon at Psi Chi floated the idea that we might get the trio back together and start answering students’ questions again from multiple perspectives, it took less than 24 hours for all of us to say “yes” to this reunion. There is something special in higher education about the ability to have collaborations with your dear friends, and these columns are evidence of this.
The theme for our Q&A in this column is “application materials.” Our three-headed approach this time ‘round was that Eric took the first attempt at addressing each question or concern, followed by Scott, then Mitch. What we discovered over time is that nuanced, more complex answers emerge to these important questions that students are asking—a complex question rarely has an easy answer (hence the need for critical thinking).
Question: How can I ensure that the letters of recommendation are well-written and useful? Is it acceptable to ask a reference to make a revision if I feel that an important detail is left out?
Eric: So let’s start with the assumption—as a student, you might not see your letters of recommendation before they are sent. The best way to make sure that your letter of recommendation is well-written, useful, and includes all the important details is to provide your letter writers with documentation (your curriculum vita/resumé, personal statement, unofficial transcripts, bullet-point summary of highlights and achievements). A conversation up-front with your letter writers can hopefully negate the need to ask for a revision. However, if you have a good enough relationship with your letter writers and if they have left out something important and if you get to see the letter before it is sent, then yes, ask for the revision. But that is a lot of ifs.
Scott: As usual, REL is right. Allow me to offer a slightly different take. Here’s my short answer: You can’t. Here’s my long answer: We can’t control others’ behavior, but we can control our own. On the day that I am writing this essay my oldest daughter is taking her Step 1 to continue on in medical school. Can she control her grade? Can a psychology major control a final exam grade in research methods? Can I control if my provost doesn’t want to renew me as dean for another year? No, no, and no. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, in all three cases, each person—the future doctor, the psych major, and the dean—has done much to prepare for the evaluation and thus has a high probability of succeeding. No guarantees, but they’ve done their best. By analogy, the letter-seeker, we hope, has worked smartly and well for the professor, has earned the professor’s trust, and has done much to cultivate a relationship and thus can be assured of a good letter. Do the work. Build the relationship. Trust your mentor. If you do those things, all will be well. The answer to the second question is simple: I don’t give copies of my letters to students, so if I make a mistake, the student would not know. So REL is correct—make sure you give professors full and accurate information. We write based on the data we’re given. Trust us to represent you well.
Mitch: As usual, REL and SVS present different perspectives and they’re both right. The themes running through both of them are (a) achieve excellence, (b) establish good relationships with your professors, and (c) refresh your recommenders’ memories with specific evidence of your excellence (more on this later), like the time your professor congratulated you on a particularly good piece of thinking (remember to mention what the thinking was!). Scott’s policy about not having students see his letters is a good reminder that having a recommender decline to show you a draft letter is not necessarily an indication that it has really bad stuff in it.
Question: What things do professors look for in letters of recommendation? How long are they usually, and how specific?
Eric: Very sneaky, because this is actually three questions. I would look for personal connections or stories that demonstrate a person’s skills, competencies, drive, commitment, dedication, and so on. The factual details (accomplishments, conference presentations, publications) are in the CV and do not need to be addressed again in the letter of recommendation. I want the letter writer to tell me about the applicant as a person. For me, the more specific, the better, and for me, the longer, the better—a longer recommendation letter signals to me that the letter writer knows the applicant better.
Scott: I do a lot of faculty hiring and see those types of reference letters and also read outside letters for tenure and promotion. REL is partially correct that longer is better. But some letters get too long and selection committees run out of time. The best letters have the most important material on the first page. And I hypothesize that a short letter is sometimes code for an unenthusiastic one. Maybe the writer is just lazy, but it’s more likely that either the relationship between mentor and mentee is shallow (in which case the mentee needs a different writer) or the writer doesn’t view this applicant as one of her top students but is trying to be less direct.
Mitch: We clinicians talk a lot about evidence-based practice, and we researchers talk a lot about evidence in general. Letters should provide evidence for assertions and generalities. The sentence: “John is a wonderful student” should be followed with a few sentences like, “For example: One time in class when we were floundering, he noticed and clearly articulated the nature-nurture issue underlying both my lecture and the students’ subsequent discussions.” The evidence in letters should include narratives and observations that nobody else can provide.
Question: Likewise, what things do professors look for during graduate school interviews? What characteristics would really impressed you?
Eric: From my experience in interviewing faculty applicants, however, I can tell you that how applicants treat staff members is often an important indicator to decision makers. And although some do not care for this term, it’s often during an interview where “match and fit” judgments and decisions can be made. My very generic advice here would just be yourself—don’t try to be someone you are not during an interview, because if you are accepted into that graduate program based on a false persona, then there will likely be a mismatch.
Scott: I interview many future faculty members from all areas of social sciences. And most of them are excellent by the time they reach me, so the discriminant validity of interview data is low, in my view. The same is often true of grad-school interviews—everyone at that stage is very good. A couple of pieces of advice to help you separate from the crowd: First, ask questions about the future mentor’s work. Faculty love to talk about their research. It shows you’re current in the area of psychology you want to study. Second, ask if there are things about your application that you think are not as strong as they could be, for example, lacking an internship, statistics and methodology, or the like. I’ve had a few applicants ask me this. At first I was taken aback. But after review, I actually like it. It shows a degree of self-awareness (i.e., “I know I’m not perfect”) and eagerness (i.e., “I want to grow professionally”) and respect (i.e., “I want to learn from the best”). I don’t know if Mitch thinks this is a good idea. I guess we’re going to find out right now.
Mitch: I’ve done my share of graduate school interviews (and maybe some of Eric’s and Scott’s shares, too). Scott’s recommendations are right on the money. For clinical and other applied programs, the variables of self-awareness and respect, and Eric’s notion of being yourself, feed right into “the ability to take supervision,” which is key. I look for evidence of achievement and professionalism. But most important might be evidence of being willing and able to learn. Whether there is incremental validity in the interview performance over and above the written parts of the application, Scott and I can debate—and maybe design a study to measure. But for now, treat every interaction as part of the interview, adopt an attitude of confidence, and don’t be cocky.
Question: What are some questions that might be asked during graduate school interviews? And what type of answers would you look for?
Eric: If I conducted graduate school interviews, I think I would probably ask questions like (a) what makes you a good fit for our program, (b) tell me about the specific reasons you think you will be successful in our graduate program, and (c) I’m sure you have compared our program to other programs—how do we stack up, and where do you think we could improve our graduate admissions process?
Scott: Last year I taught a class called Careers in Psychology
Mitch: In my interviews with applicants, I’ve always tried my best to get them “off script.” For example, I might ask about an ethical dilemma that might arise in a professional situation. I’m not looking for the “right” answer. Rather, I’m looking for evidence of self-reflection (e.g., “I might be biased because….”), which, again, might be related to the ability to take supervision and to be open. Apropos of my colleague’s suggestions, I often ask, “What questions do you have for me?” This question tells me (among other things) how well the applicant has prepared for the interview—which might be related to other skills.
Question: Are there any questions that applicants are more likely to struggle with?
Eric: I think there are some classic “trap” questions in interviewing situations to be careful with, such as “tell us about yourself.” Also, “tell us about your strengths and weaknesses” is often a difficult question, because interviewees are typically not rehearsing their list of weaknesses in their head prior to the interviewing process. Occasionally, I have heard stories of potential students asking questions during an interview that were too personal in nature; those questions are better left for after you have been admitted to your graduate program and have become better acquainted with both the faculty and current graduate students there.
Scott: I fear that occasionally interview committee members are not very well trained, which can prompt improper questions. Or committee members act like detectives trying to uncover or expose you. I don’t like that. I would rather have these interviews, like exams, give people a chance to show off what they know rather than expose what they don’t know. But others don’t agree, so be prepared for these tough questions. The best way to prepare is to think about the areas of your application that aren’t as strong. If you get asked about them, be honest. But also talk about a plan to improve. (For example, “I’ve only conducted survey research as an undergrad, but I’m excited about getting in a laboratory and I know that my coursework has prepared me well for a new methodological approach.”)
Mitch: Scott and Eric may think that my “off-script” questions are “tough” or “trap” questions, but I see them as opportunities for applications to show me how they face learning situations. I agree with them about being honest: When they ask you about your weaknesses, don’t give a disguised strength, like, “I work on so many research projects, so well, that sometimes I don’t have time to keep up my chess grandmaster title.”
R. Eric Landrum is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Boise State University, receiving his PhD in cognitive psychology from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He is a research generalist, broadly addressing the improvement of teaching and learning, including the long-term retention of introductory psychology content, skills assessment, improving help-seeking behavior, advising innovations, understanding student career paths, the psychology workforce, successful graduate school applications, and more.
Mitch Handelsman is Professor of Psychology and CU President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver, having earned his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas in 1981. He has coauthored two ethics books, Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (2010; with Sharon Anderson), and Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (2015; with Sam Knapp and Michael Gottlieb). He is an associate editor of the APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (2012). His blog for PsychologyToday.com (“The Ethical Professor”) focuses on ethical and teaching issues.
Scott VanderStoep is Professor of Psychology and Dean for Social Sciences at Hope College (MI). He received his master’s in social psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his PhD from the University of Michigan. His research articles have largely been in the area of reasoning and problem solving, college student thinking, and psychology and religion. He is the coauthor of two editions of Learning to Learn: The Skill and Will of College Success and Research Methods for Everyday Life: Blending Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches and editor of Science and the Soul: Christian Faith and Psychological Research.
Copyright 2019 (Vol. 24, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology